Think Outside the Shoe Box When Organizing Financial Records
If you've ever had trouble finding an important financial document, you know why it's necessary to keep your financial records organized. Less clutter means less stress, and though you'll need to commit a bit of time up front to organize your files, you can save time and money over the long term when you can find what you need when you need it.
What records do you need to keep?
If you keep paperwork because you "might need it someday," your files are likely overflowing with nonessential documents. One key to organizing your financial records is to ask yourself "Why do I need to keep this?" Documents that you should retain are likely to be those that are related to tax returns, legal contracts, insurance claims, and proof of identity. On the other hand, documents that you can easily duplicate elsewhere are good candidates for the shredder. For example, if you bank online and can view or print copies of your monthly statements and cleared checks, you may not need paper copies of the same information.
How long should you keep them?
A good rule of thumb is to keep financial records only as long as necessary. For example, you may want to keep ATM receipts only temporarily, until you've reconciled them with your bank statement. If a document provides legal support and/or is hard to replace, you'll want to keep it for a longer period or even indefinitely.
Records that you may want to keep for a year or less include:
- Bank or credit union statements
- Credit card statements
- Utility bills
- Annual insurance policies
Records that you may want to keep for more than a year include:
- Tax returns and supporting documentation
- Mortgage contracts and supporting documents
- Receipts for home improvements
- Property appraisals
- Annual retirement and investment statements
- Receipts for major purchases
Records that you may want to keep indefinitely include:
- Birth, death, and marriage certificates
- Adoption papers
- Citizenship papers
- Military discharge papers
- Social Security card
Of course, this list is not all-inclusive and these are just broad guidelines; you may have a good reason for keeping some records for a shorter or longer period of time.
Where should you keep them?
Where you should keep your records and documents depends on how easily you want to be able to access them, how long you plan to keep them, and how many records you have. A simple set of labeled folders in a file cabinet works fine for many people, but electronic storage is another option if space is tight.
For example, one easy way to cut down on clutter and still keep everything you need is to store some of your files on your computer. You can save copies of online documents or purchase a scanner that you can use to convert your documents to electronic form. But make sure you keep backup copies on a portable storage drive or hard drive, and make sure that your files are secure.
Another option to consider is cloud storage. Despite its lofty name, cloud storage is simply an online backup service that allows you to upload and store your files over the Internet, giving you easy access to information without the clutter. Information you upload is encrypted for security. If you're interested, look for a company with a reliable reputation that offers automatic backup and good technical support, at a reasonable subscription cost.
Keeping your financial records in order can be even more challenging than organizing them in the first place. One easy way to prevent paperwork from piling up is to remember the phrase "out with the old, in with the new." For example, when you get this year's auto policy, discard last year's. When you get an annual investment statement, discard the monthly or quarterly statements you've been keeping. It's a good idea to do a sweep of your files at least once a year to keep your filing system on track (doing this at the same time each year may be helpful).
But don't just throw your financial paperwork in the trash. To protect sensitive information, invest in a good quality shredder that will destroy any document that contains account numbers, Social Security numbers, or other personal information.
Whatever system you choose, keep it simple. You'll be much more likely to keep your records organized if your system is easy to follow.